Friday, December 18, 2009


The Preflight check on an airplane is absolutely essential. Apparently there are people out there who scoff at performing a thorough preflight check. I am not one of them. Finding a problem on the ground is much preferred over finding a problem in the air. There's that old saying that takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory and that alone should be a big enough incentive to make sure your plane works before you take off.

I could write an exhaustive article on preflighting, but the fine people of AOPA Flight Training have done it for me. Click here and you'll see an excellent general review of preflight procedures.

Of course, every airplane is different, and it's important to use the appropriate checklist for the airplane you will be flying.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Impossible Turn

Saw this at the AOPA air safety seminar in Tampa this evening. You could have heard a pin drop...and then at the landing, applause. The odds of making it back to the field in one piece after an engine failure on takeoff? Not good. Listen to his breathing. That is the breathing of a man who is terrified. I'd be crapping my pants if it was me.

This is some skilled flying by a pilot who knew his airplane and knew what to do. Kudos, pilot man...kudos.

The AOPA lecturer recommended that to practice for this scenario, you climb to a safe altitude and set a "floor." Practice taking off from the floor and simulate an engine failure, then try to maneuver back to your starting point. It will familiarize you with your plane and let you know how much altitude it takes to make "the impossible turn."

They call this "the impossible turn" because making a turn back to the airfield with no power from low altitude is usually not something that can be done with any expectation of survival. My training for power failure on takeoff is to pick a soft patch of ground and aim for it as gently as possible, which is entirely survivable; pilots die when they turn back or change plans midair. Pick a spot and try to be gentle, unless you know for sure that you have the altitude to go back.

The pilot in this video made the impossible turn and survived. He did it because he knew his plane, he knew his capabilities, and he had a plan and followed through.



12/8/2009. GIF to GIF. Four basics, climbs, descents, turns, power off stall, traffic pattern entry. 1 landing. 1.1 hours.

12/8/2009. GIF to GIF. Four basics. 0 landings. 0.7 hours.

Grand total: 18.2 hours

I got hours! I got to fly! What an exciting day. After months of wanting to do it I was able to sit in the left seat and fly. It felt good to be reintroduced to the airplane and get reacquainted with the skies.

The view from the right seat, on my second flight of the day.

I drove out to Winter Haven this morning and managed to find my way to the FBO my instructor operates from. After some wandering around and nodding at people like I knew what I was doing, I found the front desk and completed some paperwork just in time to meet my instructor coming through the door.

My CFI is a local fellow named Bryan who has flown as an airline pilot in the past. He left the airlines on his own accord to change things up a little, and now flies as a CFI while pursuing his CPA to eventually open an accounting business. We made our introductions, grabbed our flight gear and headed to the plane. I was very excited to get to use my new headset, which I purchased at the AOPA summit in Tampa this fall, and it only took me two tries to figure out how to plug it in.

Bryan started the lesson with a vital component of every flight: the preflight. With flight school airplanes there's usually less to watch for since the planes get flown heavily, but it's important to check all flight controls and as many components as possible before getting airborne.

We began by inspecting the engine oil level and draining the carburetor to make sure no water or other impurities had accumulated in there between flights. We checked the prop and looked inside the cowling for bird nests, mice, snakes, or any other abnormal things that may have decided to make the cowling their home. Moving on we inspected the wing and the control surfaces, and also inspected the fuel tanks to make sure we had enough gas. The fuel gauges in planes only need to be accurate on "Empty" according to regulations, so visually seeing how much fuel is in the tanks is an important part of the preflight check. The empennage (the tail assembly) is checked as are the rudder and the elevators. The wheels are inspected to be sure they aren't square or flat, and the brakes are examined to be sure you can stop when you come back to earth. The remainder of the preflight is visually inspecting the outside of the plane for dents, dings, missing screws, and so on.

After a thorough preflight we hopped in and started the plane up. Taxiing was harder than I remembered and I swerved like a drunk through the parking lot and taxiway, though I suspect with practice it will become easier. Before takeoff we did an engine "run up," where you throttle up about 1/2 way and check the magnetos (magnetic coils that provide power) and the carburetor heat. After verifying that the engine was good, we taxiied into position and took off.

Takeoff was a thrill. I have not taken a plane off in almost a decade, and it was a little bit of a drunken takeoff, something I will have to learn to coordinate better over time. Bryan told me to use smaller inputs on the controls, and after a few minutes getting used to the feel of the yoke in my hands I was better able to coordinate motion. We flew North and practiced the Four Basics: Climbs, Descents, Turns, and Straight & Level Flight.

Climbing and descending is mostly about power management. In a small single engine plane at least, climbing requires full power, cruise somewhat less than full, and descent somewhat less than cruise. Takeoff power is about 2700 RPM, cruise about 2400, descent in the 2200 neighborhood. To manage your climbs and descents in VFR flight, one should find the proper position of the plane, then look outside and hold the sight picture. The horizon should stay relatively in the same position as you change altitude. We worked on power-off stall recovery, which involves pointing down to regain airspeed and trying to get power back. If it happens close to the ground, well, just aim for something flat and try to get what airspeed you can to recover.

Turns are more complex. Bryan talked about vectors of lift, which I will have to research in one of my flying tomes, but basically it is the tendency of a banking plane to want to descend. Slight back-pressure on the controls is necessary to maintain altitude during a turn. We made all turns to a heading, and did both shallow banks and banks with up to a 45-degree bank angle.

Bryan takes us through a steep turn in a Cessna 150.

Eventually the lesson was over and it was time to return to the field. Bryan helped me enter the traffic pattern and then turn, but he performed the landing after I overshot the turn from the downwind to the base leg*.

After the lesson, he took me up again as a passenger in a friend's airplane. I didn't touch the controls, as this was not a flight school plane, but it was neat to review with Bryan the proper procedures and the maneuvers during flight. And it scored me some more time in the air, observing and absorbing the lessons from earlier as we flew around.

Lined up to land at runway 11, KGIF, Winter Haven, FL.

All in all: an awesome day. 1.8 hours total added to the logbook, with the "Basic Four" and some light pattern work. I know I need to work on some things; the takeoff was a bit mushy and I was not paying attention in a descent and took us below the altitude Bryan had requested that I hold. Not too serious, but definitely a mistake I can learn from. I also overshot the turn to base in the traffic pattern, but some rigorous pattern work will help me learn that better.

On the brighter side I built confidence with some turns and some climbing/descending, and Bryan told me he thought I was doing very well; at one point he told me that he had 30-hour students who were having trouble with some of the things I was doing well with. Bryan was an excellent CFI; relaxed but in control, knowledgeable, and friendly. I look forward to flying with him again soon and building my skills!

*I will talk about the traffic pattern more in the future; basically, you circle the field in a set pattern before landing. Downwind is parallel to the landing runway opposite the direction of landing, base is a turn perpendicular to the runway as you descend, and final is the lineup with the runway and final descent.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The METAR reader

I am certainly not a meteorologist. Indeed, my knowledge of the weather is minimal. This will change over time and with study, as knowing how to read and predict the weather is critical for a pilot. I've been told that regulations require a full-on weather briefing from a Flight Service Station prior to any cross-country flights, and even if you are only flying locally, knowing the weather is vital for safety.

All controlled fields have a weather report on a specific radio frequency (known as an ATIS, or Automated Terminal Information Service) that should be monitored before and during flights. Many uncontrolled fields have automated weather observation stations (AWOS) that will broadcast current weather conditions to radio-equipped pilots within range of the field. Even the airport I flew out of in Auburn, Maine had and still has an AWOS station at 118.025 on your radio dial.

Since my flight for the day was cancelled today, I decided to practice reading weather reports. Aviation weather reports come in many forms, but one form that is accessible and standardized worldwide is the METAR. What does METAR stand for? I have no idea; I understand it's an acronym for a phrase in French that has to do with the weather. I think of it as a METeorological Aviation Report, which is not "technically" right but it's close enough.

METAR's come in a standard format. Current METAR for the airport I will be flying from, KGIF, is reported as:

KGIF 041959Z AUTO 33005KT 1 3/4SM -RA =5/8sm)" style="cursor: pointer; ">BR BKN004 BKN024 OVC031 14/13A3002 RMK AO2 P0006

Wow. What a jumble of nonsense, eh? But with a closer look it can make perfect sense. All of these letters and numbers have meaning and come in a standard format that makes interpretation simple and easy. Let's go through the list.

KGIF. This is the International Civil Aviation Organization's four-letter designation for Winter Haven's Gilbert Field. A METAR for my hometown of Auburn, Maine would have KLEW listed here, Orlando International would be KMCO, and so on. Most fields have an ICAO designator.

041959Z. This is a timestamp to let you know what time the observation was taken from. the 04 means this is the 4th of the month; 1959Z means that the observation was recorded at 1959 Zulu (Greenwich Mean) time. Zulu time is used to give a standard time across the make planning and communication during long-distance flights across time zones easier. We in the Eastern time zone are 5 hours behind GMT or Z-time; this observation was sampled at 1459 local time.

AUTO. This means that the report was generated automatically by an ASOS, an Automated Surface Observation System.

33005KT. This is a wind observation: the wind is from heading 330 at 05 knots. Sometimes you will see this amended with a G and a number, such as G15; that indicates gusting.

1 3/4 SM -RA BR. This indicated that visibility is 1 3/4 Statute Miles in light rain and mist.

BKN004 BKN 024 OVC031. This portion of the METAR is reporting clouds. There is a broken layer at 400 feet above ground level, another at 2400 feet, and an overcast layer at 3100 feet.

14/13. This is the temperature and dewpoint in celsius. This not only tells you if it is warm or cold, but the Temperature-Dew Point Spread can reveal whether fog is likely. The dew point is the point at which dew condenses from the air and causes fog. A low spread between temperature and dew point indicates that fog is likely; a wider spread means fog is less likely. Current conditions are conducive to fog.

A3002. This is the altimeter setting. Altimeters work on pressure differentials, and if the atmospheric pressure changes it can cause a faulty reading on your altimeter, which can cause you to fly too high or too low. It is a good idea on cross-country flights to check weather stations along your route and adjust your altimeter accordingly. Current altimeter setting at KGIF is 3002, adjustable in a little window on the altimeter gauge.

RMK AO2 P0006. Remarks: Automated Observation, Total Precipitation .06 of an inch this hour.

And there you have it: the METAR in a nutshell. It is confusing and bulky at first, but once you read a few of them and practice, it gets easier. AOPA members can get their free weather reports at; non-members can still get METARs and aviation weather courtesy of NOAA's Aviation Weather Center.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The weather, my nemesis

At 9 AM this morning I was supposed to go flying in Winter Haven with a flight instructor I have been talking with for some time now. Despite the fact that Florida is rumored to have more flying-friendly days than almost any state except Arizona, today I was rained out. Observe the large threatening blue area with a scary red eyeball over central Florida:

(Image stolen from NWS.NOAA.GOV)

The last several days saw a frantic flurry of emails between my CFI and I discussing the weather, and last night we decided to cancel today's flight and reschedule for Tuesday the 8th of December.

Excited as I am to go up on Tuesday, I would be lying if I said I was not disappointed that I couldn't go up today. I really like to fly, but instead I'll sit and watch the rain and hope for better weather on Tuesday.

On the bright side, the fact that my CFI is in-tune with the weather and willing to cancel a flight rather than push through into potentially hazardous weather is reassuring. I would rather learn from a cautious and reasonable pilot than from somebody reckless or overconfident. Overestimating ones capabilities to operate in any conditions, let alone foul or potentially foul weather, is a good way to get frightened or seriously hurt.

So I will wait for the weather to pass. I have hot coffee and a warm house, and I can watch the rain go by and wait for Tuesday. Soon enough I'll get to go flying. I guess today just wasn't the right day.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Winch-launched gliding

Gliding mostly requires a tow plane to tow your glider to altitude. Following a tow plane one can be towed to a large height to begin the glide; as long as the climb remains safe and stable one can be towed up in theory as high as the climb performance of the tow allows.

But there is another way. Winch-launched gliding is highly popular in Europe, where I understand General Aviation is a lot less accessible to the general public than it is here, which I imagine makes it more challenging to obtain a tow. Tow planes also cost money; the pilots don't work for free after all, and the tow planes don't fly without pricey avgas. While I am sure winching still costs money, it does somehow add a layer of independence to the concept of gliding.

And winching isn't low-powered, either. These winches can fling a glider into the air at a whopping 1,900 feet a minute, which for someone who has flown in 400 to 500-foot-per-minute Cessnas is astonishing.

And if one winches in the right places, one can soar for hours. Pilot Mag had a feature about winch-launched gliding in Switzerland and told tales of one glider pilot who soared, from a winch launch, for nine hours, covering almost 1000 km in the process. Granted the thermals and wind activity in Switzerland are extremely good for gliding (epic vacation, anyone?) but still, nine hours aloft in an unpowered airplane subject to the whims of the sky is a pretty astonishing thing.

Anyway, enjoy these videos of winched gliders. I did!

Back in the saddle!

Soon, I will be flying again. I made an appointment with a local CFI that I have spoken with before, and on December 4 I will be going back for my first formal flying lesson in almost a decade.

I've done a lot of preparing. I've read a lot of the ground school, read some of the references, tried to understand the workings of the engine and the magic of the aerodynamics. I have read accident reports and safety briefings, because it is far better to learn from the mistakes of others if at all possible. I have learned the basics of weather and I have learned that it is not to be trifled with.

And very soon it will pay off. A few short days and I'll be back in the left seat of a small airplane. It may only be an hour, but it's actual instruction, hands-on-the-yoke, apply the knowledge instruction. It will likely be a review flight focusing on basic maneuvers such as turns to a heading, climbs and descents, maybe a stall or two. If I'm really lucky we may do a few touch-and-goes, but the CFI may want to wait until I have proven I'm not a total doofus to trust me to landing and takeoff.

I'm excited. Just a few short days!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Apart from flying around, what can one do with general aviation aircraft?

How about fishing?

Awesome. It takes a special kind of person to jump from a helicopter and grab a Marlin by the beak...very Australian!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Midair Collisions: Never a good thing

Midair collisions are bad. Avoiding them was one of the first things I was taught in flying, and all of the textbooks, advisories, and supplemental books I have read of late have placed massive emphasis on collision avoidance. The cockpit of an airplane can be full of distractions, but the number one rule of flying is to fly the plane first. Don't play with the GPS first, or stare intently at your map first, but fly the plane first.

Under the umbrella of fly the plane first is collision avoidance, be it with terrain, obstacles, or another aircraft. It is critical to pay attention to where you are going; especially in VFR flight at or near an airport, it is vital to keep your head on a swivel to see and avoid other air traffic.

Simply moving your head rapidly around your field of vision is not good enough. Turn from your computer monitor 90 degrees to your right. You can focus on either point but you're likely to miss a lot of the details in between. In an airplane, that could mean missing air traffic in your vicinity. Current recommendations are to change your viewpoint slowly, scanning the sky around you in small sections and stopping to really look for a few seconds.

Helping other traffic to see and avoid you is beneficial as well. I was taught long ago that navigation lights and strobe lights should always be on when the airplane is moving. If you are in congested airspace, turn on a landing or taxi light to increase your visibility. If you are operating at an untowered field with a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) or a Unicom, monitor it and pay attention to where people are relative to your position. Even in 2009 some people fly without radios; unless you're really out in the bush, don't do that.

AOPA has a few scary stories about in-flight collisions involving small aircraft archived on their website. I have never experienced one of these events, but I have experienced a close call with another airplane. Back when I was first learning to fly in Maine, I was just outside the traffic pattern area of KLEW, Auburn/Lewiston Municipal Airport. We were roughly over the Auburn/Poland border and we were heading inbound towards the airport. I was looking forward and to the left when out of nowhere a flash of yellow screamed across my field of vision, maybe 500 feet beneath us but close enough that it startled me. I caught a glimpse of two wings and then I lost sight of the other plane. It scared the heck out of me, but it was a valuable lesson that even in the relatively un-congested airspace of central Maine there is other air traffic and complacency is bad.

The other aircraft may never have even seen us, and he was not making any advisories on the Auburn radio frequency. It blows me away that some people still fly without radios when a handheld can be bought for a measly $400.00...but that's a whole different post.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Balloons, Gliders, many airplanes, so little time

Learning to fly is an exhilarating experience and one that is recent in human history. Hundreds of years ago, people like me could look at the birds and think of Icarus and that was more or less all you could do. If you liked the idea of flying, climbing onto a tall object and leaping off was really the only was to experience it. A few madmen tried it, and while I am sure it was thrilling, it was usually also terminal. Not the best way to enjoy a flight.

Then, in the late 1700s, came the Montgolfiers in Paris. Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier launched a sheep, a duck, and a rooster into the sky in the basket of the first hot-air balloon. My history text notes that the animals were, in the words of a witness, "to say the least, highly astonished." Around the same time Jacques Charles, another French inventor, demonstrated his hydrogen-filled balloon, a good idea that would be shown to have a fatal flaw when Hindenburg violently exploded several decades later.

Mere weeks after the exhibitions of these rival balloons, on November 21 1783, the first successful manned flight in history would take place when Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes would balloon over Paris and drift several miles in the wind.

Aviation has come a long, long way since then. The Montgolfiers and Messieurs de Rozier and d'Arlandes would probably be astonished at the marvels of modern flight: the SR-71 capable of flying from California to the East Coast in just over an hour, the supersonic Concorde flying between Paris and New York, the unlikely behemoths such as the 747 drifting along at 450 knots over the Atlantic. Not only can we putt along in a Piper Cub at 60 miles an hour, we can also fly far and we can fly fast.

SR-71 image stolen from

But even today as NASA launches rockets into orbit, Ballooning is still going on. People routinely take to the sky in hot-air balloons. A woman I work with flies with her husband in a Boeing Stearman, a classic Biplane used to train many military pilots long ago. Gliders are still used extensively in many parts of the country, and new developments in powered gliders have added a new dimension to soaring. Hang gliding remains a popular thrill activity. Thousands of people fly around in Cessna 150's and old Piper Cherokees even as the latest and greatest Airbuses zip through the atmosphere 30,000 feet above us.

The upshot of all this: there is a lot of flying to be done. There are so many unique and fascinating ways to fly, and there are thousands and thousands of different airplanes out there to be flown in. What little airtime I have so far comes mostly from classic trainers, the Cessna 152's and 172's I flew in years ago. But though I have few hours, I have a lot of time before me, and I hope to experience as many different methods of flying as I can, from going up in a hot-air balloon to pushing forward the throttles in a jet to cutting the tow rope on a glider and soaring around the clouds.

I don't know yet when my next flying lesson will be. There are details to sort out and people to talk to, but with any luck, I can be flying again in a few short weeks. I'll be sure to let you know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Hello and welcome to Airways to Airways: learning to fly.

You may be wondering about the title of this blog. Allow me to explain. I am a registered respiratory therapist with six years of experience who is currently practicing in the sunny state of Florida. As a respiratory therapist, I deal with all aspects of breathing and its associated functions. We like to joke in our profession that breathing is important because if one is not breathing, one is not doing anything else either. Of course, to breathe one needs an airway, and hence our priorities are Airway, then Breathing, then Anything Else.

But respiratory therapy isn't what I want to do forever. Many years ago, I took to the air and began to learn to fly. For reasons I've never been able to determine I stopped after about 16 hours of airtime--just shy of the point where I'd be beginning to learn to navigate and go solo. Nine years after I stopped flying, I have thought about it and decided that it is time to do what I love. Life is short, and it is high time to get airborne again. I won't let another nine years go by between flights.

This is the story of my transition from the Airways of modern medicine to the Airways of modern aviation. Follow along as I learn to fly, and we'll see what else I can learn along the way.